My agent rang me up on Friday to say how much she enjoyed the First Draft of my new book. That was nice of her but then she is a very nice woman. She has performed all sorts of kind actions in the time we’ve known each other, including on one occasion driving me home from a party in Central London during a snowstorm when I was, insanely, wearing a light Summer suit.
After her call, I recalled how incredibly intimidated I was by agents when I first started out trying to be a writer. The idea of contacting one was a bit like setting out to slay a dragon and I regularly meet aspiring authors nowadays who have the same attitude.
To such jaundiced individuals agents are at best a necessary evil and at worst a parasitic life-form. I had a graphic illustration of this when I arranged for my agent to give a talk to a group of students on a publishing course run by a friend. When I asked her how it went she told me that many of the students had been openly hostile.
I think this comes about because people get confused about what agents actually do. They exist to sell author’s work. That’s it. Plain and simple. They’re not a general critiquing service, though people often treat them as such. A friend who joined a writing group, reported that one of the writers who’d been struggling with a half-finished novel for some time said she was thinking of ‘sending it to a few agents to get a bit of feedback.’
In my opinion that’s a bit like going into the office of an estate agent (or realtor to use the US term) and saying, ‘Listen, I don’t actually have a house to sell just a lorry load of bricks, but when I do it will have five bedrooms a fully-fitted kitchen, a bathroom with an enormous jacuzzi, a large mature garden and heated outdoor swimming pool. Are you interested in selling it?’
It’s because they get asked questions like this that agents can seem inaccessible and even frosty to writers at the beginning of their careers. But the fact is, they exist to sell literary property and, given something saleable, they will work hard to sell it, because in doing so their own interests combine with the writer’s.
Of course they don’t always get it right. An unpublished writer once showed me a manuscript for children which I thought was very good. I recommended an agent to her. The agent read it and liked it. Then she asked her daughter to read it. The daughter didn’t like it. So the agent decided to reject it. I advised the author to go directly to a publisher I thought would like it, and they did. Which only goes to prove that agents are human, like everyone else. They don’t always listen to the right people or make the best choices.
But the truth is that the real problem generally lies not with the agents but with us, the writers. I regularly read manuscripts by developing authors and I have to tell you that an awful lot of them are so bad it’s almost physically painful reading them. Only a sense of responisbility and the memory of my own early days keeps me plodding on to the end. In these unpromising manuscripts it’s nearly always the case that the writer isn’t considering the audience at all. He or she is thinking only of his or her own creative impulses. This is the book he or she wants to write and the rest of us should therefore be prepared to read it, whether we like it or not. But no-one has to read anything. We can pick and choose. That’s the beauty of the market.
So if you get overwhelmingly rejected by agents, my advice is this: don’t get mad; and certainly don’t waste time thinking about getting even; just get better.